BY RANDA GRIFFIN
Shortly after her family moved to China in 2000, Debi Yohn was bitten by “the dragon” and joined a woman’s dragon boating team. Now, years later, the Wellington resident is still dedicated to the sport and about to participate in her biggest competition yet: the 2017 IDBF World Championships in China.
In search of something to connect her to her Miami roots, Yohn knew she needed to find an activity that involved the water while she was living abroad.
“I found a flier that mentioned something about dragon boating, so I got on a bus and went to where the team was forming,” she recalled. “I got bitten by the dragon, started going to practice once a week, and the rest is history.”
Dragon boating is an ancient sport that typically places 20 crew members on a long, narrow boat. Paddlers use long paddles to propel the boat through the water, while a drummer keeps the beat of each stroke at the front of the boat.
Dragon boating has yet to be included in the Olympics, so teams from around the world gather at the World Championships every two years to compete and celebrate the sport. The teams are divided into different divisions based on age, and medals are awarded to the winning teams. Yohn, an active member of the Wellington Rotary Club, is going for the gold.
“It’s really all about teamwork. Everyone depends on you because there’s not a seat on the boat that isn’t important,” she said. “It really brings sisterhood to a whole new level.”
This year’s World Championships will take place in Kunming, China, where Yohn will represent the United States and her community.
With a doctorate in counseling psychology and a successful professional career to her name, Yohn said that she has always been comfortable with academic challenges, but the physical demands of dragon boat racing were a new obstacle.
“I was never really an athlete growing up, so overcoming the physical challenges has been new for me,” she said.
Yohn worked hard to make the team competing in the championships and hasn’t slowed down since. She is required to check in with her coach every month and spends as much time as she can in the gym or out on the water. “I race in every race I can. It’s all about increasing your involvement with paddling,” Yohn said.
Dragon boating has become an increasingly popular sport, and Yohn is doing her part to expand the sport in South Florida. She became the coach of the Jupiter United Dragons, and teamed up with the Lighthouse Dragons, a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team, to empower and encourage women.
“I’ve been coaching these wonderful women since January of this year, and it’s very heartening to me to be around these survivors who have such a spirit for life,” she said. “It’s contagious.”
Yohn said she is grateful for all the opportunities that she has been given and credits the local dragon boat teams and the Wellington Rotary Club for allowing her to continue pursuing her passions back in the U.S.
Yohn’s list of achievements is long, but she said her proudest accomplishment was having the opportunity to be a mother. After losing her son in a car accident, she said the memory of him and their time racing together keeps her going.
“Sometimes when I’m paddling and seeing the finish line, I remember when he was with me,” she said. “A lot of times I’ll wonder if I can make it to the finish line, then I think of him, and I always make it.”
Along with the physical work it took for Yohn to make the team, she now has to focus on raising the money to travel to China and stay for the competition. A GoFundMe account has been set up in her name to help raise the money for expenses, and Yohn thanks the people who have been supportive.
“I have just been so blessed by the people who have come forward and sponsored me in big ways and in small ways,” she said. “I feel so thankful and appreciative to those who have stepped up to help me make this dream come true.”
Unsure of what the future holds, Yohn is excited to see where her passions will take her next.
“I think the future just keeps getting better and better. I plan to keep on paddling and give back in whatever way possible,” she said. “I have no intentions of slowing down.”
Anyone interested in donating to Yohn’s journey can visit www.gofundme.com/debiyohn.